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Summer Colds
Summer Colds No matter how big or small, deviated or straight it is,rhinovirus thinks your nose is just perfect

However much those of us who live in four season climates look forward to summer--the vacations at the beach, the long days and short nights, the freedom of lightweight clothes--we all know it’s not just one long happy picnic. Just like ants that march in to spoil it, so do bugs that bite and sting, poison ivy that itches, and sunburn that scorches. Along with an entree of insects come a serving of cuts and bruises, a side order of scratches, a pinch of puncture wounds and a take-out order of ticks. Follow that with a super-sized order of allergens and, suddenly, summer is no picnic. Thank goodness, we don’t have to deal with the common cold. After all, it’s hot outside; where could the cold come in from?

Well, I’m about to tell you. However, let’s start with some background about cold viruses.

The scientific name for a cold virus is “rhinovirus.” “Rhino” is Greek for “nose” and “virus” is Greek for, well, “virus.” Scientists chose that name for two reasons: (1) because “nose virus” doesn’t sound particularly sophisticated and (2) because the nose is the perfect environment for a cold. Rhinovirus needs a warm, moist, protected environment in which to thrive; our nose, not the slopes of Perfect North, is that perfect place. No matter how big or small, deviated or straight it is, rhinovirus thinks your nose is just perfect. It has just the right temperature—98.6°, just the right humidity—90%, and just the right amount and consistency of nasal mucus to help it stick. Moreover, there are many crevices (called “turbinates”) inside your nose in which rhinovirus can hide to avoid eviction by a sneeze.

Rhinovirus would be content to luxuriate inside your perfect nose indefinitely, but eventually your immune system will kick in and give it the boot. Then it has a problem. Rhinovirus lives a nose-to-nose existence. After just a few hours of exposure to the great outdoors, rhinovirus will bite the dust. It needs to find another nose, and it needs to find another one fast. In the winter, when people are huddled together for warmth or at least all crowded together in heated rooms, another nose is, at most, a sneeze or a handshake away. In fact, if rhinovirus is living in the nose of a child, it may be just nose to nose with another nose. Who knows?

However, finding a new nose in the summer has historically been a challenge for rhinovirus. “Huddling together” for warmth isn’t the most popular pastime for most people under most circumstances in hot weather. Au contraire. Because noses are generally farther apart in the summer, rhinovirus has to take advantage of every opportunity just to survive. For example, inanimate objects such as plates and tabletops tend to be warmer and moister in the summer than in the winter, so rhinovirus can survive on them longer while it’s waiting for an errant nose to come along. Because warm air holds more moisture in general than cold air, rhinovirus can also travel farther and faster with any given sneeze or cough to reach distant rhinos. But, overall, throughout the millennia, summer has meant lean times for rhinovirus and, thus, the common cold has historically been a winter affliction.

People have their own challenges with hot weather and have come up with many creative ways to survive it. In tropical climates and hot summer weather, they traditionally wear lightweight, light colored clothing, take siestas or quick dips in cool water during the hottest part of the day and hide out in the shade from the midday sun. They also build porches to sit on during the day and sleep in at night, rooms with tall ceilings where heat can collect or homes with thatched roofs that allow the heat to escape. Our bodies can adapt physically as well. With prolonged exposure to high temperatures, we acclimatize by being able to sweat more profusely, dissipate body heat more efficiently and to function efficiently at a higher body temperature than in cooler weather. Exposure to sunlight increases the amount of melanin in the skin, a pigment that helps (I must emphasize the word “helps”) protect the skin from damage due to ultraviolet light.

Fair-skinned individuals get visibly tanned, but even people of color will develop more skin pigmentation with exposure to sunlight. Fundamentally, neither people nor rhinovirus have changed much over time, but summer colds have become more common. While no one knows why for certain, there are some plausible theories. The chief contender in my mind is that our most recent adaptations to hot weather have inadvertently re-created the same conditions for rhinovirus to find new rhinos in the summer as they have always had in the winter. Modern air conditioning in rooms, cars, buildings, and even entire shopping malls allow us to congregate comfortably in large numbers in close proximity and in enclosed spaces in the summer just like we’ve always done in the winter. And, as the human population grows, overcrowding sometimes occurs, making it easier for rhinovirus to find new rhinos at any time of the year. Wherever we are elbow to elbow, we’re also nose to nose, just a sneeze or a handshake away from each other and just a sneeze or a handshake away from someone else’s cold.

Regardless of the time of year, infants, whose immune systems aren’t fully developed, are particularly susceptible to catching colds, and toddlers, whose instinct to explore themselves, their environments and their friends is at full throttle, are particularly good at spreading them. (It was not a three year old who said, “You can’t pick your friends’ noses.”) For the many youngsters who must now attend daycare or pre-school year ‘round, summer’s just another one of those “Sneezin Seasons.”

Our modern way of life affects older kids too. Back when baby boomers were babies, only the local movie theater and maybe Mom and Dad’s bedroom had A.C. Because it was just as hot and uncomfortable indoors as it was outdoors, kids went outside to play.

There were always plenty of kids to play with and plenty of things to do. Outdoors was also safer then than it is today: more friends and neighbors, more sidewalks, quieter streets and fewer strangers lurking about. Nowadays, kids are lured indoors by air conditioning, HDTV, computer games, cold drinks, and shopping malls. Unfortunately, where we humans might see a bunch of kids congregating indoors, rhinovirus sees a herd of rhinos browsing on the web.

Except that it tends to cause fewer serious complications, a summer cold is no different from a winter cold. The culprit, its symptoms and treatment are the same. The problem is partly that we’re living in an indoor world that’s a year-round haven for rhinovirus in its quest to find our perfect noses. Admittedly, a summer cold is no picnic, but, ironically, a picnic is the least likely place you’re likely to catch one. My advice is this: if you want to stay healthy this summer, get outside as much as you can, wear sunscreen and picnic as much as you would like. After all, while there’s no cure for the common cold, there is a cure for ants. It’s called insect repellent. “Bon appetit!”

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"Summer Colds"
   authored by:
Dr. Anne Phelan-Adams is a board-certified family physician with experience in a variety of practice settings ranging from occupational health and urgent care to traditional family medicine. When not busy working or caring for her four children, thr...

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